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Saving Money at Amusement Parks

Dori T-shirt

I can still remember my first trip to Disneyland. I was six years old and I had been looking forward to it for weeks. The drive to the park in Southern California seemed endless. When we arrived, I was so excited that I felt like my heart would leap out of my chest. I had seen Mickey Mouse on TV and now I was going to meet him, Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, Goofy and the whole gang in person. (Back then I didn’t realize they were just grown ups in costumes.)

The walk down Main Street seemed magical and the park ginormous. I begged my parents to take me on every ride and didn’t want to leave, even after my eyes shut from exhaustion.

Local Memberships Help You Save on Amusement Parks

 

I grew up in Southern California and thanks to a Southern California Select membership, going to Disneyland became a once-a-month adventure. Disney did and still does today offer special, reduced price annual memberships for locals and Disneyland vacation packages for everyone that make trips to the park affordable. There were many blackout dates when your pass wouldn’t get you into Disney Parks on those days but as locals, we didn’t want to go battle the crowds on those days anyways, which usually included the hot summer months and holidays.

Today I live too far away from Disneyland to buy an annual pass but I still dream from time to time of how much fun I think it would be if my family and I lived close enough to make monthly trips up to Disneyland. Thanks to visits to see Grandparents, our kids have been able to visit both Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney World in Orlando. My in-laws are retired military and were able to get us reduced-price passes to Walt Disney World Resort that included an extra day’s admission to any Disney park for free. When we visited our family in Southern California a year later, we used the remaining free day to get into Disneyland at no additional charge. It was a very frugal way to enjoy an amazing amusement park.

Save Money with Discounts and Deals

 

The ways I’ve been able to save money at Disney parks apply to other amusement parks as well. As Mr. Frugal Rules and I have been dreaming up summer vacation ideas, I keep urging him not to cross amusement parks off our list (admittedly, he doesn’t enjoy roller coasters as much as I do). We’ve been able to enjoy regional parks on a budget by taking advantage of limited-volume discounts and last minute vacation deals through Priceline.

I subscribe to a few daily deal sites like Groupon and Amazon Local and sometimes they include discounts to amusement parks. I’ve also checked Craigslist as people sometimes sell tickets or passes they’ve purchased that are transferrable but they are no longer able to use. Especially if the passes are about to expire, the owners are often willing to sell them for up to 40 percent less than what they paid for them.

Amusement Parks offer multi-day discounts or deals to military members, veterans, seniors, children and AAA members. I’ve also been able to save money and gain free parking by purchasing admission tickets at grocery stores as opposed to at the parks themselves. In fact, one of the easiest ways I’ve found to save at parks is to simply buy tickets ahead of time, online or from a third-party reseller as opposed to waiting until I arrive.

Dining Offers Opportunities to Save

 

The last time I visited a Disney Park, we ended up buying a pizza for everyone to share and spent in their neighborhood of $50 for five of us to enjoy two slices and a drink. I made a promise to myself that day that the next time I visited a theme park, Disney or otherwise, I would plan my meals better so that I wouldn’t have to spend so much. Almost all amusement parks allow re-entry.

By packing a lunch or bringing a cooler and keeping it in my car, I can spend a lot less on food. Then, by eating at a nearby restaurant for dinner, I spend less than if I’d stayed in the park to eat. I save on drinks by carrying in empty water bottles and filling them with free water throughout the day. I love churros but I’ve been able to resist the urge to spend $8.50 on one of them at amusement parks by sticking a pack of gum in my pocket and chewing a piece whenever I smell churros. This little habit saves me money and calories (and let me tell you, after four kids in five years, I need to cut calories wherever I can :-)).

Resist the Urge to Purchase Souvenirs

 

I love t-shirts. One of my favorite things to do is to buy a t-shirt from places I visit as a way to remember them by. If I am going someplace very special, or I have an especially fun time, I will budget about $20 to buy myself one t-shirt from that place.

When we went to DisneyWorld, I snagged a Dory t-shirt because it was absolutely perfect for me. Mr. Frugal Rules calls me Dory (the congenial, helpful and very forgetful Blue Tang from Disney Pixar’s Finding Nemo) because we are so alike.  * Mr. Frugal Rules here – the nickname is spot on. ;-) I found a shirt there that had a big picture of Dory and said, “I think I forgot where I got this tee.” So, I bought it and years later, I have no regrets.

Other than t-shirts though, I resist the urge to splurge on souvenirs as they can really bloat my vacation budget. If you fall prey to the same weakness, try what I try – leave your credit cards, checks, check cards and other cash someplace safe so that when you’re tempted to buy something you haven’t budgeted for (like another t-shirt), you don’t have the means to act on that temptation.

My final piece of advice is to have fun! Trips to amusement parks can turn into treasured memories that you and your family or friends will carry with you for the rest of your life; some of my happiest, funniest memories occurred at amusement parks. (Like the time I was arrested by the Disneyland police for spitting out of the Skyferri; a “cop” named Joe “detained” me in the Disneyland Police Department and then had me and my friends escorted out of the Park.)

Just because amusement parks can be expensive, doesn’t mean they have to be. Plan carefully, buy ahead of time, take advantage of discounts, bring your meals and limit your purchases and you can enjoy amusement parks frugally. Just don’t get yourself arrested – unless you’re up for a real adventure.

 

Are you trying to plan cheap vacations? What amusement parks are you interested in visiting? What’s one of your favorite amusement park memories?

 

 

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I'm the founder of Frugal Rules, a Dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry. I'm passionate about helping people learn from my mistakes so that they can enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. I'm also a freelance writer, and regularly contribute to U.S. News & World Report, Personal Capital, Daily Finance and more. If you're wanting to learn how to monetize your blog, check out my blog coaching services to see how I can help you take your site to the next level.

34 Comments

  • We went to Disney World twice when me and my siblings were kids and I definitely was a sucker for those souvenirs! I also would add that some amusement parks like Disney offer specific credit cards that can get you reduced (or free!) resort stays, admission, etc. Someone at my work goes almost every year so he is up on the Disney rewards haha.

    • Thanks for the tip about the theme park credit card, DC. Maybe after we finish churning for John’s birthday he’ll let me get a Disney card and start earning park rewards!

  • We haven’t gone to any amusement parks yet because our kids are only 2 and 4. However, I absolutely HATE Disney World so we’re not going there. I’m just going to take them to Cedar Point and tell them that it’s Disney World.

  • pauline says:

    We always brought our picnic to parks with my parents. I really wanted to eat from the stalls but now I realize how bad and overpriced the food is.

  • Tara says:

    If you’re a Costco member, their travel agency does complete packages to Disney World which include hotel, airfare, and park entry. While overall, it still may not be cheap, for what you get, you save a ton of money. If you’re budgeting yourself for a fancy Disney World trip and are a Costco member, I strongly suggest checking out their travel site to price out vacation packages.

    • Hi Tara – we ARE Costco members. I’ll have to check that out. That might just be something we have to do in a few years when our youngest is old enough to remember and truly enjoy it!

  • Matt Becker says:

    I remember going to Disney World When I was 10 and my brothers were 8 and 4. It’s one of the happiest memories from my childhood. I actually think not being able to go every month made it a lot more special, because it was really kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I definitely think that with anything like this, there are always creative ways to save. Simply showing up and buying tickets at the door is almost always the least effective way to do it.

    • That’s awesome Matt. I’m glad to hear someone else enjoys Disney as much as I do. I will admit that I am (or at least I used to be when I was growing up) a Disney freak. It was my dream to work at the Park (Disneyland in So. Cal.) and to be a Disney animator when I grew up.

  • Great post, Mrs. FR! Some parks offer home schooling discounts as well. Our local amusement park has a few days every year in which they offer home schooling families over 50% off the regular all day admission price. HUGE savings, especially for bigger families.

    • Wow, Laurie. Good to know! I never thought about a homeschooling discount on certain days but that totally makes sense. We know a lot of homeschooling families very well so I’ll pass on this info. Glad you liked the post.

  • All good tips. We did Disney World with the kids three times over the years and have been to the Universal parks in both Orlando and LA as well. Enjoyed all of the visits.

    There is a local Six Flags in the far north suburbs of Chicago and the greatest thing about that park was when my youngest became old enough to go on his own meaning that I never had to set foot in there again!

    • Ha ha. That’s funny Roger. So I take it you are more of a Disney fan than a roller-coaster fan. I like both and we’re within a day’s drive of Chicago so I just might have to drag Mr. Frugal Rules to the Six Flags park you’re talking about when our kids are a little older. :-)

  • I love amusement parks! They are so much fun, and luckily I only go around once per year (if that) so saving money isn’t as imperative, but it is nice. I agree about never buying souvenirs.

  • Mark Ross says:

    Amusement parks are really great for people wanting to have a fun every once in a while. I only go to an amusement park whenever I spot a deal online, that way I really know that I’m saving money. I also agree with you that souvenirs are sometimes a waste of money, you can just take pictures instead, they’re free and they will not get broken down easily. :)

    • It’s funny, Mark, I used to think Disneyland was SO overpriced until the first time we visited the Iowa state fair and I started calculating how much it cost for my kids and I to ride the Ferris wheel. I realized that while Disney is expensive, it’s actually less than what it would cost me to ride all the rides at the State Fair and MUCH more worth the money. But, I do agree with you that they are expensive. Going when you can find a deal online is a smart way to enjoy them.

  • We haven’t been to an amusement park in ages. I’m not really into them, but my wife likes them.
    When our kid is a bit older he can go with him mom. :)
    I never buy souvenirs from amusement parks. Our house if full.

    • Ha ha. I hear you on the full house! That’s what I’ll tell my kids next time – the house is too full of junk kids! :-)Sometimes, the other thing I’ll buy instead of a T-shirt is an ornament for our Christmas tree. That’s been fun too because it provides a reminder of the trip and doesn’t take up a lot of space. :-)

  • E.M. says:

    I’m not an amusement park person as I don’t really like roller coasters at all! I went to Disney once when I was 7, and we haven’t been able to go back. My mom keeps saying she would like to go (she’s more of a kid than I am) because it was fun, but she has banned me from the Dumbo ride if I tag along (apparently I liked to steer up and down very rapidly which didn’t sit well with her). I’ve also been to Hershey and Six Flags and neither of them really amazed me, but I do agree with all of your tips! Planning ahead is always the best way to get deals.

    • That’s so funny that you mention the DUMBO ride. My daughter did the same thing to me when we visited Disneyland a few years back. I was 20 weeks pregnant with our youngest and it was about the only ride other than the carousel I could go on. She really gave me a run for my money!

  • Alexa says:

    You can also purchase Disney Dollars at Krogers. they often run 2-3 times fuel points on those gift cards which could end up being a couple tanks of free gas, depending on what you buy.

    I buy our tickets to Kings Island online for a discount and then I completely avoid the souvenirs!

  • Nice post, John.

    All of our local parks seem to offer discount or even 2 for 1 days, especially if you can wait until later in the season.

  • Well, I can honestly say that I am no amusement park person, so I don’t have much desire to go. Now, that will have to change when my son grows older, but I will try to refuse the Disney parks. They are way overpriced.

    • Check out a state fair or county fair (or some other ramschackle amusement park) Grayson, and let me know what you think. :-) Disney is probably still overpriced (especially when you add in food AND if you don’t land a discount) but at least for me, it’s worth it :-)

  • Jake @ Common Cents Wealth says:

    These are great tips! My wife and I went to our local amusement park a few months ago and utilized almost all of these tips. The biggest one for us was bringing sandwiches for lunch. We then went offsite to McDonald’s for dinner. It saved us a bunch of money.

    • Thanks Jake! I’m glad to hear the tips were spot on. Glad also that you were able to save some good money at your local amusement park! I will now begin counting down the days until I can hopefully do the same when we (hopefully) visit Southern California next summer.

  • My dad and step-mom live in Florida and have season tickets to disney. They go to Disney they way we go to Target ;-). Because they’re so close they just eat lunch before the go. They also always carry water bottles so that they don’t have to buy park water which is really expensive.

  • Derek - MoneyAhoy.com says:

    Whenever we do amusement parks we pack a cooler in the van. Make sure you eat right before you go, and come out during lunch-time to have sandwiches and chips. We’ve probably saved hundreds over the years.

    Also, if you bring a water bottle, you can fill it up at any of the kiosks for free.

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